Blick in einen Ankleideraum in einem Restaurant in dem sich drei japanische Kurtisanen gerade auf den Abend vorbereiten

Lyrical landscapes, graceful geishas and dramatic scenes from the theatre: the rare and valuable Japanese woodblock prints that entered the collection of the Freiburg municipal museums nearly one hundred years ago allow a vivid ephemeral world to unfold before our eyes. These exceptional pieces found their way to Freiburg thanks to Ernst Grosse (1862–1927), an ethnologist and former director of the municipal art collections. Grosse, who was a passionate scholar of East Asia, collected artwork from China, Japan and Korea for the city as well as for his own private collection. Supported in this endeavour by his patron Marie Meyer, she also generously donated woodblock prints to the municipal art collection. Today these pieces comprise a portion of the Museum Natur und Mensch ethnological collection. These multifaceted works, which have been newly evaluated and interpreted by East Asia specialist Hans Bjarne Thomsen of Zurich, reveal fascinating insights into the world of Japan from the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries.


Outside of Japan, atmospheric landscapes are arguably the most popular and most collected genre of Japanese woodblock prints, and the best-known protagonists of this genre include Utagawa Hiroshige and Katsushika Hokusai, both of whom were early stars among European collectors.

Within Japan, this genre of woodblock prints first developed relatively late, and its significance was long overshadowed by the  popularity of works depicting actors and "beautiful women". This changed with the publication of what would become the world-famous series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji by Hokusai and One Hundred Famous Views of Edo by Hiroshige, which roughly coincided with the increased popularity of Japanese travelling within their own country in the first half of the nineteenth century. These travellers brought landscape prints back home as souvenirs, and as a result the genre became increasingly popular. Artists themselves seldom had an opportunity to travel to the places they depicted, and thus motifs are often based on other prints or the artists’ imaginings.



Women with delicately made up faces, draped in luxurious kimonos: The gaze of European collectors first encountered Japanese women in woodblock prints. More so than any artwork that had previously arrived in Europe, the prints of "beautiful women"  created an impression of Japanese women as exotic and erotic beings. Similar depictions in the works of European artists and composers would further add to this impression.

Japanese woodblock prints reveal the complex of differences between the roles of women in early modern Japanese society, and bear witness to the ways in which the lives of women varied according to social status. Not all women led the restricted existence of courtesans, who weren’t able to leave their entertainment districts, and these prints showed that women could be inhabitants of entertainment districts as easily as they could be lovers, mothers, domestic workers and fabulous heroines. Many women took part in poetry circles and in the cultural and commercial lives of their cities as patrons of the kabuki theatre.


Surinomo are privately commissioned prints adorned with poems and images. The occasions for commissioning these keepsake prints included important events such as name changes and marriages. Most common were surinomo new year’s greetings, which were exchanged within exclusive circles, and the interplay of poetry and image symbolism within these works were intended to subtly and entertainingly convey the messages of the commissioning parties.

Kabuki actors, their patrons, and members of poetry circles often commissioned surinimo from artists and publishers. Cost was little deterrent to those who commissioned these works, and thus surinomo were often produced using high-quality materials and more elaborate techniques than other woodblock prints. These works differ markedly from other prints in their extensive use of embossing techniques, expensive metal pigments and exceptional papers.


Theatrical poses, contrast-rich make-up – yakusha-e actor prints were just as dramatic as the kabuki theatre tradition, and like the theatre itself, this woodblock print genre was immensely popular in Japan.

Countless extant woodblock prints reflect the various themes and stories integral to kabuki theatre: war narratives, love stories, myths and legends of bloodthirsty revenge were all immortalised in wood. But that wasn’t all, woodblock artists offered kabuki fans something beyond impressions of the on stage scenes, also creating behind the scenes glimpses into the personal and private lives of the actors. Over the course of time some of the most celebrated stars have come to be immortalised in hundreds of prints. The enthusiasm for actor prints never entirely subsided, and the tradition of woodblock artists creating imaginative mementos of kabuki stars that began in the seventeenth century continues to this day.


The deep-seated belief that humans share the earth with ghosts, spirits and demons was an essential aspect of everyday life in early modern Japan. Other worldly beings and human contact therewith was thus a popular subject for literature, theatre and other art forms. Woodblock print was a medium well suited to depicting these fantastic beings in a detailed and varied manner, and a wide array of spirit beings found representation in prints. The creatures depicted, in turn, became the protagonists of horror stories people told each other on summer nights.

An especially widespread theme in these images wasthat of the visiting spirit who sought revenge on those who had tormented them in their previous lives. In the stories informed by the print motifs in was  not only ghosts and demons that traversed the worlds, but animals such as foxes and racoon dogs as well, which were endowed with magical abilities, and a (blue) flame was used to signify the presence of supernatural creatures.


From the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries early modern Japan was a world full of woodblock prints. Everything from candy wrappers and advertisements to stationary was printed using woodblock printing techniques. All considered, over 1,000 publishers released a variety of prints in different formats year after year and there was no technical difference between the production of colour woodblock prints from highly regarded artists such as Hokusai and simple advertising pamphlets.


The technique had originally come to Japan from China, and in the eighth century copies of Buddhist texts and images became the first Japanese printed material. The printing technique began being employed in nonreligious contexts in the late sixteenth century and, as it was more expedient that hand copied manuscripts, soon gained popularity as a means of producing printed matter including novels, travel guides and maps. While handmade paintings remained out of reach for the common person, the price of a woodcut print, roughly equivalent to a meal, was an art form that nearly everyone could afford.

Exhibition catalogue


The catalogue for the special exhibition "Japanese Woodcuts from the Ernst Grosse Collection" (30.6.-30.9.2018), edited by Hans Bjarne Thomsen for the Städtische Museen Freiburg, Museum Natur und Mensch. Petersberg: Michael Imhof Verlag 2018 is available in the museum store.